Today’s review is for a card game I picked up with a birthday gift card. I’d heard of Death Angel for a while, and seen lots of the expansions floating around as well, but never had a chance to give it a shot. I figured I wasn’t missing out on anything huge.
Oh, how mistaken I was.
In the grimdark future of the year 40K, you lead a bunch of Space Marine Terminators stomping through a space hulk (read: amalgamated mass of crashed spaceship bits, asteroids, and assorted refuse), killing the homicidal and omnipresent Tyranid Genestealers that infest it, and attempting to complete the objective.
Fluff-filled blurb aside (and if nothing else, the 40K setting is amazing for fluff alone), the cooperative game is a combination of risk management, planning, and a bit of push-your-luck gambling on what you’ll need, when you’ll need it, and where you need it.
Plan and guess well? You’ll stay ahead of the curve, probably suffering losses here and there, but pushing through to the end.
Plan poorly, or get a single instance of bad luck at the most delicate and worst possible moment? Your Marines will die to alien claws and/or teleportation mishaps/exploding fuel tanks/electrical detonations before you even see your objective.
Overall, the game is fun. The pace is remarkably quick, and solo play (a major reason I bought the game in the first place) can wrap-up a successful game in half an hour, or an unsuccessful game in fifteen minutes. It can support up to six players, and I think with expansions that number can bump up to 8 or so. Speaking of expansions, those are on my must-have list now, which is a bit of an issue as I’ll touch on later in this post.
One quick note with the factor of luck and the dice: even when losing, even taking into account the factor of luck with the die rolls, it never feels like you just got screwed by fate and had no chance to win. In fact, the die rolls to me help elevate this above games like Solitaire, where poor luck with a deck setup can result in effectively unwinnable games even if the player makes no errors. Games are fun in Death Angel, even if you can see that the light at the end of a tunnel is a train, and in the cases where luck helps pull your bacon from the fire you feel like you just punched Death in the teeth and laughed.
Two anecdotal scenarios where luck imo enhanced the flavor of the game:
- For one of my first games I ended up winning, I had a key player eliminated early from an improbably easy foe. My Terminator lugging around a Heavy Flamer, a flamethrower capable of reliably clearing out tons of enemies in one go, was killed from behind by a lone genestealer after I whiffed on rolls to kill off said ‘stealer. However, despite the sorely-felt loss, we managed to push past the loss, and ended up winning the scenario after only losing 2 of the 6 starting Space Marines; in 40K, that is a survival rate to be celebrated with champagne and cheering.
- My one of my latest games I played, I was feeling shaky. I’d played around five or so games of Death Angel, felt that I had a good feel for most of the Space Marine teams, but my guys were surrounded by Genestealers. Most of the swarms were small and not unkillable threats, but one of them was so large that it meant instant-death for whoever it was targeting. I faced it with my Psyker, who had a special rule enabling him to attack again if his first attack was successful, and he managed to burn the lethally-huge horde down to only a pair of leftover ‘stealers and left me laughing with relief. The small and theoretically-easy swarms then proceeded to eat him and most of the rest of my remaining Space Marines in a single turn after a set of unlucky rolls.
Both games were amazing, and the psyker incident in particular made that one of my top games played so far despite losing almost immediately afterwards.
The gameplay here is something I really, really enjoy. Rooms are quite simple endurance exercises for the most part, except for the final scenario rooms which have some sort of condition needed to win the game. Until then, players progress by revealing (but not necessarily wiping out) all of the Genestealers in a particular direction.
This is a really interesting distinction, because the lethality of Genestealers means you want to try and race through to the end ASAP, but doing so without killing them off first means you’ll end up with swarms that can and will mince your Marines before they’ve left the second room.
The setup for Actions is a nice tweak too: everyone gets three cards for three distinct actions they can use for their two-man Marine team, each action flavored uniquely for their team, and you can’t use the same card twice in a row. Cards have a ranking for what order they resolve in, and this makes for a really rich area of discussion with other players for plotting future actions, as well as introducing a great element of “oh crap, we did that in the wrong order” and ending up facing the wrong direction and shooting at blank walls while Genestealers attack from behind.
One key mechanic is the Support tokens: one of the three actions lets you add a support token to any Marine. This is a huge tentpole of the game, as they allow a reroll when defending against Genestealers you’re facing or attacking. Given the obscene lethality of the aliens, getting what is essentially a one-up is unspeakably valuable (although balanced against the other two actions of Move/Change Facing/Activate doors and panels, and Attacking).
The biggest concern I have is that the game can be very, very rough early on. Once you start getting units facing towards the threats rather than being outflanked, and manage to start getting the Support tokens on the VIP Marines (more on that in a sec), the survivability and likelihood of success skyrockets. However, that can be slow going, and a lucky swarm with only one or two Genestealers can wipe multiple Marines, even VIP Marines, if you haven’t had time to get support tokens on them.
The other minor annoyance is the very, very sharp dichotomy between the marines in a given team. Each team has two marines, with fancy names and art. One of them will invariably have some very useful ability tied to one of your Action cards, typically Attack, and it tends to be a defining feature that can turn the tide of a firefight.
The other Marine gets diddly-squat.
While I’m quite sure it was intended, I’m not a hundred-percent-sure about how it affects games. Narrative-wise it’s great when Captain HugeCannon gets cut down and Brother Mook gets a chance to shine and succeed, but mechanically you have basically lost 33% of that team’s effectiveness and uniqueness. As most of the abilities are very high-kill-count attacks, this can hamstring your ability to counteract the onslaught of a large Genestealer swarm.
The last note of mild disagreement is player elimination. If you lose both of your Marines from your team, you’re out of the game. On the surface this is frustrating because you have to sit out the rest of the game, but in general I think the spiral of doom that starts when you begin to suffer heavy casualties means you’re only probably sitting out for a few minutes at worst.
The exception to this being that if someone manages to pull through with a Hail-Mary success, it becomes far more interesting as you’re still rooting for the player (as compared to competitive games). There’s also an event that lets you bring a Marine back from the dead, but only from a team which hasn’t been eliminated; I’d argue that an appropriate houserule would be to allow it to resurrect a eliminated team’s marine as well, and let a player basically rejoin the game if the event turns up.
This game is fantastic, both as a fun cooperative and fast card game, but also as an introduction to Warhammer through the popular gateway setting of Space Hulk. I would strongly recommend a purchase of it regardless of if you have a regular gaming group or rarely game with others, as the solo mode is superb and the multiplayer mode can support up to very healthy groups of 6 players, with more after expansions.
Speaking of which, I might need to go pick up some of those here in the immediate future…
Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think in the comments/reblogs below! I’m out of town for the next two weeks, but I’ve got a little content to post for you next week that I’m scheduling, and there will be a review of what game testing I managed to get done for my prototypes of Holy Press and Ruin. Cheers!